Everybody Got to Deviate from the Norm

Some of my co-workers and I started sharing some of our favorite music. We’ve been doing it for a while, but now we’re actually reviewing them and sharing those reviews with one another. So here are the four albums that were suggested to me this week.

A note on how I rate things. One star means I don’t think it qualifies as music. Five stars mean I wish I wrote the thing. Most music for me is a three.

Gorillaz – Demon Days (2005)

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t really like the Gorillaz. I feel like they’re the epitome of over-produced music. I’d take organic mistakes any day. Obviously, a polished performance is better than a garage band who has jammed together once. But, I’m putting my prejudices aside and giving this album an honest listen.

And I was pleasantly surprised. All my opinions of Gorillaz is based mostly on their first album. Although Feel Good Inc. is exactly what I expected from Gorillaz (maybe because it got real radio play back in 2005 because it was what people were expecting), I think that maybe I didn’t give them a fair shake when they came out, but I like this much more than I thought I would.

I think my favorite track was Every Planet We Reach is Dead. First, it has a little shuffle to it and I feel like this is more of a call back to Blur (Song 2 was really an anomaly – they weren’t really that rockin’) than anything else. And it wasn’t as obviously super-produced like some other stuff on the album.

The last three tracks were also pleasantly different from what I expected. I think I had heard Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head before or maybe I’ve just seen plenty of Dennis Hopper movies, but after this odd story with slightly odder background music comes Don’t Get Lost in Heaven, which felt like it could have been a Beach Boys cover (except I know it isn’t) and the uncharacteristic (and relatively chill) title track.

I don’t know if DARE had much airplay or if I just had friends that listened to Gorillaz, but it sounds really familiar. And while it seems like I shouldn’t like this song at all, I kinda do. Which says maybe some of their other stuff could grow on me.

That being said, Damon Albarn’s vocal style is not my favorite (I can’t actually understand a thing he says) and they do have plenty of obviously heavily produced weird electronic elements, but as a whole the musical arrangements are solid. Usually that would bother me; they can write great music, but when it comes to executing it they fall short. I said that usually bothers me. In this case, they achieved exactly what I think they were going for. They don’t really have any “unrealized potential.”

I wouldn’t buy this, but for the most part I would enjoy it if it popped up in a mix. Considering the low opinion of them I had, that’s quite an accomplishment. 2/5

Rush – Moving Pictures (2005)

While I am a Rush fan and I have this album on vinyl (which means I listened to that while I reviewed this album instead of Spotify, which I normally use), it’s been a while since I’ve listened to anything more than their hits.

So of course I played along with Tom Sawyer and Limelight (which I think is my favorite Rush song ever – although The Trees from a couple of albums earlier is a contender – and is at least the reason I bought this album) in my head when they came along.

Rush always seems to be at or near the top of the list of best prog rock bands. Personally, they lose out to Yes for my favorite, but one thing Rush does better than Yes is their use of mixed meter – not just staying in good old 4/4 or 3/4 time, but really playing with the time signature and putting beats down where you don’t really expect them.

I remember (erroneously) thinking YYZ was a reference to XYY syndrome, because it was more aggressive sounding – like how men with XYY chromosomes are supposed to be more aggressive than normal XY males. At least I learned something in my junior high science classes. I don’t think it was until I started writing music and thought about using the rhythm of Morse Code to be the foundation of a song (something I still haven’t done yet to my personal satisfaction – maybe I’ll go back and rework what I started) that I realized how off I was. Musically, it’s a very interesting idea. And as hard as it can be to write good, straightforward rock and roll, it’s even harder to do something like this and have it work.

The beginning of The Camera Eye will always remind me of Disneyland’s Main Street Electric Parade, except without the vocoder unfortunately.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Rush proudly presents our spectacular festival pageant of nighttime magic and imagination. In thousands of sparkling lights, and electro-synthe-magnetic musical sounds: The Camera Eye!

So close.

Well, it quickly goes a very different direction. One that would actually work on Space Mountain, I think….

Anyway, this is really a great track and I think the only reason it’s not one of their more famous songs is because the 11 minute length isn’t really something radio guys want to deal with. Although you’d think they wouldn’t mind, as it would give them a bathroom break.

I have always felt like Vital Signs was another hidden gem of this record and it deserved more attention. I’m not sure what I love about it (maybe the fact that it isn’t one of their hits), but this is the one song from this album I forgot I liked and realized I missed listening to. 4/5

Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down (2005)

Anyone who says all bluegrass and country music sounds the same should listen to Punch Brothers and these ladies. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I didn’t get it. I got something better.

While they are solid instrumentally, that’s not the best thing about this band. Their vocals are clear, their harmonies are tight, and their lyrics tell intriguing – sometimes haunting – stories, which are then complimented by the instrumental parts which were obviously written to help augment the story.

They seem like they’d fit in better at a smoke-filled speak easy than a barn-raising. Even Lonely Island didn’t seem like country girls singing a slightly Hawaiian influenced-song, just white girls singing it. I hardly ever got a traditional country sound from this record. The one exception was If I Don’t, and even then it was a kind of nice change.

I think my favorite song from this album was Good Luck, Good Night, Good Bye, partly because it seems like something I would have written, except the minor bits. I wouldn’t have thought of that. I’ll have to go back and rework some old material after listening to this album, too. I have no low-lights for this album. It is really great, and the pleasantest surprise from this week’s listenings. 4/5

Oingo Boingo – Dark at the End of the Tunnel (2005)

Guys. I love Oingo Boingo. I probably don’t have to listen to this album again to review it, but I will.

To be honest, I like their Dead Man’s Party album more than any of their others (bonus fact: Dead Man’s Party was released the actual day I was born back in the 80s). I would have shared that album with my coworkers some time. And I still might, but not until I exhaust plenty of other options my coworkers haven’t heard. And while I have plenty of vinyl records, I don’t have this one. The only Boingo record I physically have is Only a Lad, which is also great.

All of that was to say that this album is not my favorite Boingo album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty darn good, I just feel like they sound like more generic 80s pop rock. I don’t think they sold out. I just think Danny Elfman was just concentrating on his soundtrack work and was getting bored with Oingo Boingo. Like always I love how he calmly sings about kinda creepy things, like peeling away someone’s skin.

Two songs which I feel embody the old-school Boingo feel (and perhaps because of that are my favorites on this record) are When the Lights Go Out and Flesh and Blood. I think it’s the horns on the former and the xylophone on the latter that really helps with that.

And while there aren’t really any lowlights for me, the only other really notable songs here are Out of Control (which is my favorite of the more alt. rock sounding tunes) and Skin (because of the great mallet work and the simple yet effective piano riff at the beginning). 3/5

Fitz and the Tantrums – Pickin’ Up the Pieces (2010)

The band was formed by front-man Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick. He was a music producer in LA and was rather sick of all these bands using distorted guitar and sounding mostly the same. So he was going to make a band without guitar. And they were going to have a big, clean sound. He founded the group shortly after a break-up. He decided he needed to release some energy through creativity and get a focus and direction, for the sole purpose of distracting him from the discomfort of the break-up. In late 2008, he received a call from that same ex-girlfriend (who had demanded a rigid “no-talking” policy) to tell him about a neighbor who needed to unload a church organ. Thanks to some “shady Russian piano movers,” Fitz had the organ installed in his apartment that night. He called up a sax player he knew from college, who recommended another vocalist and a drummer. The drummer then brought on a bassist and keys player. And they were a band.

A lot of their success is due to being in the right place at the right time and having the right people hear the right music. That’s not so say they aren’t talented, because they really are. They’ve put in a lot of work, and fortunately for them, it has been recognized. I really love me some baritone sax, especially when it’s played by someone who knows what they’re doing. And Jim King knows what he’s doing. His sax playing gives me eargasms. Yup. I went there.

These guys bring back an old Motown or soul feel. A lot of people have said Wolfmother ripped off 70s hard rock bands – not any specific song, but just in general. Fitz and the Tantrums have walked that same line, but haven’t ever seemed to cross it. All the critics praise them for honoring their inspirations without seeming to go so far as to rip them off. I give this album a 4/5.

Maybe to get you in the mood, or maybe to enjoy once you’ve heard the studio version, here’s a video of the two vocalists and their sax player playing while floating around the canals of Amsterdam with a single mic:

Here’s what my coworkers thought:

“I really, really, liked this album. From the beginning to the end I felt the sound was crisp and creative, without being so creative it became somewhat inaccessible (see Gorillaz). I loved that it just sounded new, while still being grounded in now and the past. I plan on listening to more of their music, and might even buy an album if I see it at a thriftstore or a yard sale. 4/5” – Tim

“Paul showed me some of these guys when we were driving to shoot for the channel videos. If I remember correctly, that was a live album, and it had a great energy. These guys have a very fun sound.  And I love the throwback feel. But beyond the high energy style, there wasn’t any particular song that really jumped out at me like the other retro group this week, Secret Sisters. I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt though and assume this is simply not the type of album to calmly listen to in the background of boring office work. I can imagine blasting this in my car and enjoying it more this summer, and perhaps I’ll have to try that. As of now, it was just a really fun album but not much more. I saw a review from The A.V. Club that summed it up rather well for me:

Make no mistake–Fitz and his Tantrums are a great time, but so is Maroon 5, and that more maligned act might well have made this exact album, had vintage soul been trendy in 2002.

Again, I did not dislike the album. I’m just giving my reasons as to why I didn’t LOVE it. Not yet anyway. 7.5/10″ – Chris

“Good clean sound.” – Casey

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